Dancing in Uzbekistan

Erkin arrived just after 8:00 a.m. to take me to Bukhara. I was still eating breakfast and chatting with a nice couple from London who had just arrived in Samarkand that morning. We weren’t scheduled to leave until 8:30, so I finished up my breakfast and then had one of the young men help me with my luggage. We were on the road by 8:34 and headed to Shakhrisabz, a small town south of Samarkand on the road to Bukhara, which just also happened to be the home town of Timur.

Driving into the mountains

The drive took us through a small desert mountain range. As we drove higher, I noticed that the leaves on the trees were changing colour, which served as a reminder that we were only a week or so away from autumn. (I quite frankly have lost all track of time and seasons given that I spent the bulk of the first month and half of my trip in outright freezing to slightly cool temperatures.)

Pass marker
View from the top of the pass

Anyway, once we reached the mountain pass, we left Samarkand province and entered Kashkadarya province. We stopped at the pass marker and the view was absolutely spectacular looking back towards Samarkand province.

On the back side of the pass, the scenery changed almost immediately to much greener brush and trees. When the car started to become hot again after the respite from the heat in the mountain pass, I rolled down the window and immediately smelled grilled meat. As we proceeded down the mountain, a series of little kebab shacks came into view. Now I have no idea why there was cluster of kebab shacks along the road as we drove down the mountain, but there they were. Some were open and you could smell the food as we passed, while others looked boarded up. Unfortunately, Erkin’s English is not that strong so he could not answer my “why here” question.

Kebab shack

We finally arrived in Shahrisabz just before 10:00 a.m. I was meeting a guide for a 2 ½ hour tour of some of the top sites of the little town. As we drove into town, I immediately got the sense that the Soviets had never been here. Whereas Tashkent and Samarkand had decidedly Soviet looking apartment buildings and storefronts, Shahrisabz looked very middle eastern with tiny adobe style homes and narrow alleys.

As luck would have it, I had apparently arrived during a large cultural festival that was taking place in the massive center square. Unfortunately, that meant traffic diversions. So instead of driving into the square we had to do an end down a narrow alleyway through a residential neighborhood, park the car and then walk about a ½ mile across the square to meet my guide, Tursinoy at Ak-Saray, the remains of Timur’s summer palace.

The remains of the summer palace

Now at this point, Erkin was incensed that we were not permitted entrance. Apparently there is an exception to the blockade to allow tourists through. Erkin tracked down the head police officer who came over and asked me what happened. I explained we were not permitted to enter and had to walk half way across the park. However, I told him I needed the exercise so it wasn’t a big deal and gave him a thumbs up. He laughed and seemed happy with my response. Erkin, however, wanted retribution so while my guide began to explain to me the history of Ak-Seray, Erkin continued to discuss the issue with the police officer.

Mosaics on the portal summer palace
Mosaics on the portal of the summer palace

So one of the great things about Ak-Seray, is that the Soviets did not restore the palace. In other words, the remains are the remains and have not been altered or renovated. The remains date to 1400 AD and consist of two massive, 38m-high pishtak, (a large portal or entryway) covered with unrestored mosaics. The mosaics glistened in the bright sunshine and I could not take my eyes off of them as Tursinoy explained the history of the site.

After the requisite time to take pictures, Tursinoy and I started walking towards the center of the square. Now this square was very modern, filled with fountains, and massive flower beds and trees. And sitting amongst all of this were large stages, performance areas and art displays set up for the Maqom Art International Forum (festival) that had been established by President of Uzbekistan to promote Uzbekistan’s cultural heritage. Each province in Uzbekistan had an area of the square to put on shows, demonstrations etc.

Syrdarya Province dancers at Shahrisabz festival
Syrdarya Province dancers at Shahrisabz festival

So as we walked towards the relatively new statute of Timur (that marked the entrance of his summer palace), music filled the air. Tursinoy and I ended up walking to a stage for the Syrdarya province where I was able to sneak my way in near the front of the crowd to take some pictures. This proved to be a HUGE mistake.

As I was snapping pictures and clapping along to the music, one of the male dancers came over and grabbed my arm and lead my onto the stage. I was mortified. The only tourist in the crowd, and now I was on stage expected to dance with professionals. I feared I would offend my hosts if I didn’t join in. So for the next two or three minutes, I twirled around and moved my arms like the women were doing. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately), my camera was around my neck so there is not a single picture of my performance, but judging from the huge ovation, slaps on the back and demand to have pictures taken with me, I apparently passed the test. All I could think of is thank God there is no one here who knows me.

My fan club after my dancing

After the dance fest, Tursinoy and I moved across the complex to a weaving area for the Surkhandarya province. As we walked, we apparently passed a woman performing some ancient weaving technique but did not stop. We were looking at another display when a man came over and urged us to come back to watch the weaving technique. I figured this was a ploy to get me to go over and buy something, but the man was so insistent, I thought what the heck.

Second HUGE mistake of the day. Turns out the guy was a broadcaster for Uzbekistan 24, the main television station in Uzbekistan. Next thing I know, I am surrounded by dancers and as I watch the weaver, someone throws a hat on my head and the broadcaster thrusts a microphone in my face and wants to know (1) my name (they could not understand it even when my guide pronounced it); (2) where I was from; (3) why I was at the festival; (4) what I liked about the festival; and (5) what I liked about Uzbekistan. Yikes. Loaded questions. I did my best to answer while Tursinoy translated. Apparently I passed test number 2 because everyone was patting me on the back again. Then as I tried to leave, a woman starts singing, the ladies start dancing, and I am being asked to join in on live T.V. All I can say is that I hope the Uzbek people forgive me for completely butchering their native dance from the province of Surkhandarya.

The weaver “ploy”

At the end of the interview and dance fest, some fellow from a newspaper wanted me to pose for pictures with all of the other ladies. It was quite the scene as everyone wanted in on the picture. Unfortunately, Tursinoy never asked for my camera and I never gave it to her so once again, I completely failed in the photo category. I plan to google the festival and Uzbek 24 and see if there is a video of my interview that I can post.

Anyway, after dance (and interview) fest number 2, Tursinoy and I wandered by some festival vendors where I was persuaded to buy an silk embroidered satchel for the crazy price of $6. It is beautiful, but I have no idea what I will do with it. I may be giving away gifts when I return home.

Khazrati-Imam Complex

Our final two stops of the day were to tomb site and a mosque at the other end of the square. By now it was absolutely boiling hot and I was dripping wet from the dancing so it was heaven sent when we went into the little courtyard outside the Khazrati-Imam Complex. The complex was constructed by Timur in 1392 and contains the remains of his eldest and favourite son who died at 22.

Timur’s intended tomb

The complex is most famous for the Crypt of Timur, designed and constructed by Timur, but which lies Timurless since Timur was buried in Samarkand. In order to access the crypt, we had to go through a narrow doorway and and even narrower stairwell. The room was simply designed with Islamic scripture written in the four corners of the crypt surrounding the crypt stone tomb and that was about it. Two unknown bodies lie buried beneath the tomb.

Kok-Gumbaz Mosque

After the visit, we made the long (at least it seemed long in the heat) walk to the blue domed Kok-Gumbaz Mosque built by Ulug’bek and completed in 1437 to honour his father. The mosque has been completely refurbished and was, quite frankly, pretty unremarkable.

Dorut Tilyovat mausoleum

Across from the mosque was the Dorut Tilyovat, a mausoleum completed by Timur in 1374 that contains the remains of Timur’s ancestors. Those buried there include a spiritual adviser to Timur and Timur’s father. Next door was the Gumbazi Seyidan, which Ulugbek finished in 1438 as a mausoleum for his own descendants. This was by far the more attractive of the two mausoleums.

Desert landscape

By now, I was absolutely overheated and needed to sit down. Fortunately, we were finished with the tour (and the dancing). I said goodbye to Tursinoy and met Erkin for the remaining 4 ½ hour drive to Bukhara. Most of the drive reminded me of driving through southern Iran. The landscape was mostly desert scrub, with massive pipe lines taking the Uzbek oil to refineries. Interspersed with the desert landscape was the occasional farm wherever water flowed. Most of the farmable land is used for apple orchards, cattle farming and the occasional camel herd.

Desert town

We stopped for a bite to eat at a little family run restaurant and I have to say, I was not very comfortable at the restaurant.  There was no a single woman in the restaurant and everyone kept staring at me.  In addition, the young man waiting on me was wearing a t-shirt with an AK 47 on it that read “Defend Paris”.  I wondered what the heck that meant.  (I then Googled it and found out that “DEFEND” embraces the AK rifle as metaphor for peace (SERIOUSLY???) and as an expression of for the group’s passion and rage. “Passion for human rights, fashion, freedom. Rage that these ideals are under attack. Rage around the hopelessness we see in our cities and the death of our children’s dreams.”  Even after the Google search, I wasn’t convinced.

The restaurant and the shirt

Anyway, after lunch we continued on.  And as we drove, I got quite a kick out of the Uzbek method for deterring speeding. Every so often a wooden police car or wooden police officer would appear on the side of the road. I couldn’t figure out if the placement was (1) a reminder to slow down; (2) a reminder that police cameras are recording your driving (yes there were cameras everywhere); or (3) intended to fool people into believing the police were on the side of the road. I tended to think it was the first since the Uzbek people seem to know that cameras are everywhere and that the police erect these wooden signs. So number one it is.

The wooden police car

Anyway, after the looooong drive, we arrived at the wonderful Amulet Hotel in Bukhara old town. The hotel is a converted madrasah where students lived and studied everything from philosophy to religion. The madrasah was built in the 19th century, was renovated in 2005 and is simply gorgeous. The down side? I had to hike up a VERY narrow staircase to reach my second floor room and some poor guy had to carry my luggage upstairs. So this will be my base for the next three nights. And first thing up, a nap. It had been a very tiring day with all the dancing and interviews and pictures ….

Author: lawyerchick92

I am a lawyer by trade, but long to be a full time traveller. My life changed for the better when my brother donated a kidney to me on October 14, 2002.

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